Teaching Poetry to Middle Graders

This past summer, I took a poetry class for children’s writers. I was never a big reader of poetry or someone who wrote poems to express myself. However, I was quite inspired to both read and write poetry afterward. Attempting to write my own poetry helped me understand how to read and analyze its structure.

Photo by Steve Johnson

As a former teacher, I was curious what I should have done to teach poetry to my middle graders. I thought I’d ask an expert.

Heidi Roemer is the author of many poetry picture books and over 400 poems published in various children’s magazines. (See the end of the interview for titles of her books.) She was also the instructor for the poetry class I took. I wanted to get her opinion on teaching poetry to middle graders.

Why is teaching poetry to children important?

It’s important to share poetry with children because it lays the foundation for language and literacy skills. Poetry introduces readers to rich vocabulary and figurative language, creates phonological awareness, and advances the ability to read. Author Mem Fox said it best: “Rhymers will be readers. Experts have discovered that if children know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they’re four years old, they’re usually among the best readers by the time they’re eight.”

What do students get out of poetry vs. prose?

Prose is like viewing a movie on an Omni-Max screen. Fictional prose, or “story”, has its basic foundation in setting, character, plot, rising tension, climax and resolution. Poetry is like looking through a magnifying glass. Most poems offer a close-up look at a single subject and note its nuances through a variety of ways: similes, metaphors, irony, imagery, alliteration, assonance, and sometimes rhythm and rhyme.

Reluctant readers may prefer poetry over prose because of the brevity of the text. There’s usually a lot of white space on the page! This quote says it best: “Poetry is a can of frozen orange juice. Add three cans water and you get prose.” (Anon.)  Perhaps more so than prose, poetry is meant to be read out loud. Not only does this provide an opportunity to improve listening skills, it also can create a life-long love for language and reading. A good poem is a delight to read because it sparks the imagination and elicits a response from the reader–a chuckle, a groan, a sigh, an epiphany. The conciseness of poetry, especially when combined with an engaging rhyme and meter, can make just about any topic memorable.

How should teachers teach poetry?

Teach poetry, first, by providing a poetry-friendly environment. Have poetry books and audio poetry accessible to students during their free time. Post poems that reflect a variety of poetry forms and topics on the walls. Begin each morning with a poem. Read a science, math or geography poem that coincides with the subject you will be teaching on that day.  Choose poems that are active and engaging. Be familiar with the poem yourself before sharing. When reading to students, remember the “Three E’s”: energy, expression and enthusiasm. Keep it brief; don’t over-explain. To encourage participation, have students read in unison, or read a line and have them repeat it back to you. Divide the class into two groups and have them take turns reading alternating lines or stanzas. Incorporate movement. Let students perform the poem. A turkey baster makes a great pretend microphone for those who really enjoy hamming it up! Use appropriate props for visual stimulation and variety. Make poetry a fun experience and they will beg for more!

At what age should students write their own poems?

Children can be encouraged to write poetry, even at a very young age. Small children can dictate their poem to an adult. It isn’t necessary to know all the rules and terminology to write a poem. Encourage students to let words and feelings flow. Allow them to draw a picture to go with their poems and then display them in a prominent place. Coax and encourage students to read poetry and to write more poems!

What is the focus for middle graders when WRITING poetry?

Writing poetry begins with the selection of a topic. Have students think of a topic they find interesting. Let’s say the topic is coconuts. To gain sensory details, let students hold a coconut. Have them rub, shake, and even roll the coconut on the ground. Let them tap its hard shell and feel its tough fiber. Crack open the coconut and let students taste the watery “milk.” Next, ask students to gather more information. Ask then to research. What does a coconut tree look like? Where does it grow? How is it harvested? You might ask them to google “Ten Fascinating Facts about Coconuts”. Once the data is collected, students can decide what “one thing” they found most fascinating about their subject and write about it. Encourage them to use their poetry tools (alliteration, assonance, figurative language, etc.) to create their poems. Remind them to use concrete nouns and action verbs as best they can. Encourage each student to write a closing line that contains a little “zing!” or is meaningful or insightful in a special way.

Share five wonderful mentor texts for teachers to use with middle schoolers.

A New School Yearby Sally Derby
Six children share their worries, hopes, and successes on the first day of school.

Friends and Foes: Poems About Us All by Douglas Florian
A touching, often humorous, collection of twenty-three poems about relationships—both good and bad!

GuyKu by  Bob Raczka
This playful haiku collection will resonate with children. “Non-rhyming poetry can be a tough sell for kids. For some, though, haiku is less intimidating, thanks to its brevity…” —Publishers Weekly

Read! Read! Read! by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater.
Twenty-three poems about the joy of reading everything from maps to sports news.

Imperfect: Poems About Mistakes: An Anthology for Middle Schoolers by Tabatha Yeatts
This anthology contains a variety of poems that focus on mistakes. Some poems are funny, some are serious, and others show how mistakes can sometimes lead to amazing discoveries.

Author’s Note: I want to add one of my personal favorites:
Poetry Matters: Writing a Poem from the Inside Out by Ralph Fletcher.
Although intended for children, it’s a great read for adults, with the focus on writing poetry (which I encourage teachers to do. I learned so much about reading poetry from attempting to write it!). This book is a quick read offering all the basics of writing poetry as well as ways to be inspired.

And, of course, Heidi Roemer’s poetry books need to be included in this list.

The ABC’s of Kindness (Highlights Press, 2020)
Peekity Boo! What  YOU Can Do! (Henry Holt, 2019)
Who Says Peek-a-Boo? (Highlights Press, 2019)
Who Says Uh-Oh? (Highlights Press, 2019)
Hide-and-Seek at the Construction Site (Highlights Press, 2019)
Hide-and-Seek on the Farm (Highlights Press, 2018)
And the Crowd Goes Wild!: A Global Gathering of Sports Poems, co-editor (FriesenPress, 2012)
Whose Nest is This? (NorthWord, 2009)
What Kinds of Seeds are These? (NorthWord, 2006)
Come to My Party and Other Shape Poems, (Henry Holt, 2004)
All Aboard for Zippity Zoo! (ZooLoose, 2003)

Any resources for teachers that you would recommend?

Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School by Georgia Heard
This poetry handbook explores how to cultivate the poet in every elementary and middle school student through examples, exercises, creative projects and classroom teachings.

Maybe You!by Brod Bagert
Young minds will shift into overdrive as they encounter the history, philosophy, and principles of scientific inquiry packed in this collection of dramatic poems, monologues, and short plays.

Poems Are Teachers by Amy Ludwig VanDerwate
Classroom teachers, grades 2 – 8, will love this book! Lessons help students learn how to replicate the craft techniques found in poetry samples.

The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science (a series) edited by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong
Each lively and accessible science poem is paired with a “Take 5” list of teaching tips. Teacher Edition is available in paperback and ebook versions. Student version is available in paperback. For more information about The Poetry Friday Anthology series, see www.PomeloBooks.com.

The Poetry of Us: More Than 200 Poems about the People, Places and Passions of the United States by L Patrick Lewis
An anthology of delightful poems and stunning photos that focus on a broad spectrum of subjects– people, places, landmarks, monuments, nature, and celebrations–that are all part of the  U.S.

Wow! Anyone else want to teach poetry right now after reading that? There are so many benefits to teaching poetry to middle graders. I must recommend attempting your own poetry as well. It really is eye-opening as to what writing poetry entails.

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Natalie Rompella
Natalie is the author of more than sixty books and resources for kids, including THE WORLD NEVER SLEEPS (Tilbury House, 2018) and COOKIE CUTTERS & SLED RUNNERS (Sky Pony Press, 2017), her first middle grade novel. Visit her website at www.natalierompella.com